For millions of amateur and minor league baseball (MiLB) fans, the 2020 season was a bust. Not only did COVID-19 wipe out most all the scheduled games, 2020 may be the end of the line for many teams. Reports abound that more than 40 minor league teams are on the ropes, and in 2021 they may be gone forever. The Chattanooga Lookouts, the Erie Seawolves and the State College (Pennsylvania) Spikes are among the established teams on MLB’s endangered list.
Sports Illustrated sent a survey to 68 MiLB teams and interviewed 21 front-office executives to evaluate how they view their ball clubs’ futures. No one is optimistic. Several Triple A and Double A franchises, MiLB’s highest levels, reported that they may need to file for bankruptcy. To the disappointment of the struggling MiLB teams, their MLB affiliates haven’t bothered to telephone to offer encouragement. MLB is a $10.7 billion industry, but is willing to let franchises that lose money sink. That’s today’s corporate model - get rid of dead wood, and let the chips fall where they may.
But MLB has taken an exceptionally narrow view of MiLB’s importance. Erie, Chattanooga, State College and other teams facing the axe provide affordable entertainment to their local small-town communities. The teams also make jobs available that provide a measure of hope to often-struggling residents. For more than a century, fans have turned out to support their favorite ball clubs and their youthful prospects striving to get to the big show. But for the first time in MiLB history, baseball wasn’t played, employment opportunities disappeared, and fans were abandoned.
MiLB’s golden era ran from the early 20th century through 1949, when 464 teams in 49 leagues from coast-to-coast drew 42 million fans. Outstanding players dotted minor league rosters: Willie Mays wowed them in Minneapolis for the Millers, Joe DiMaggio played for his hometown San Francisco Seals and Mickey Mantle was the brightest star on the Joplin (Missouri) Miners.
Bands often played pre-game, and families picnicked outside the ballpark before the first pitch. Instead of hiding in the clubhouse, players mingled with fans, signed autographs happily, and after a particularly satisfying win, hoisted some rooters high into the air to share the spontaneous post-game euphoria. But eventually television, and then major league expansion, ended that simpler time.
Sacramento Rivercats’ president Jeff Savage, whose team has won three Triple A championships and five Pacific Coast League titles in their 21-year existence, laid off 30 of his team’s 65 full-time workers in late April and must find a way to continue paying off the bonds that built a $46 million, privately owned stadium in 2000. Instead of kicking off what Savage expected to be another banner Rivercats’ year, he slashed salaries and told 500 seasonal employees that they likely wouldn’t have jobs this season.
Savage summed up his plight: “You can’t sleep at night, knowing some of the things you’ll have to do to survive. It’s sort of unthinkable that we’re in this position.”
COVID also KO’d the well-known and beloved Cape Cod Baseball League, a New England fixture since 1865. As Dan Crowley explains in his book, “Baseball on Cape Cod,” the warm summer weather and high-quality baseball played by skilled college boys has attracted fans in growing numbers since 1880. The league has produced outstanding Hall of Famers that include: Pie Traynor, Pittsburgh Pirates third baseman; Red Rolfe, New York Yankees, an infielder and later Yale University’s baseball coach; Carlton Fisk, Boston Red Sox and Chicago White Sox catcher, and Frank Thomas, the White Sox long-time designated hitter.
The last page of Crowley’s book shows why fans’ devotion to the MiLB is unyielding. Pictured are two youngsters watching a Cape Cod Baseball League game in progress. Their t-shirts read: “Cape League IS Baseball” and “100% Pure Baseball.” In recent years, MLB’s greedy ownership, its contentious politics, and the overpaid, delicate, injury-prone players have contaminated the big league baseball.
“Pure Baseball,” as the t-shirt says, should never be allowed to vanish.
Joe Guzzardi is a Society for American Baseball Research and an Internet Baseball Writers Association member. Contact him at email@example.com.